News last week of a possible oil spill in Greenlandic waters ought to be a wake-up call for firms and the county’s officials. Learning a lesson now could prevent future misfortune from becoming a calamity
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When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaskan waters in 1989, it took three hours for representatives from the coast guard to board the oil tanker. Less than half an hour passed before a tugboat had been dispatched to pull it free.
When an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig, occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the response kicked in even more quickly.
Nevertheless, when a satellite identified what may have been an oil slick off Greenland’s eastern coast on August 10, it took a Danish naval vessel the better part of a week to make it to the site. When the Knud Rasmussen finally did arrive, waves of between six and ten metres and ice-filled water prevented its crews from taking the tests that would identify what the slick was comprised of.
It wasn’t until August 17 that the military could say anything for certain. What they said at that time was that the substance the satellites had observed now appeared to have disappeared. What the substance was remained uncertain, though the military assumes it was oil that had been released by a passing ship, and that the storm had disbursed it.
In reality, that means we’re no wiser about the situation. Hopefully, it wasn’t a major spill, and, hopefully, whatever it was won’t prove harmful to the environment and particularly not to the fisheries that are vital to the Greenlandic economy.
The best thing you could say about the incident is that it could be a sort of dry run for Greenland’s oil-spill response. It showed us how responders act in the event of a spill, what they can do better, what types of resources are necessary and just how big a role weather plays in Greenland.
In reality, this taught us nothing more than we already know: Greenland is huge and its capacity to respond to a spill is small. But that didn’t make it any easier to watch as the clock simply ticked by. Had an accident really happened, the situation would have got worse right in front of our eyes.
The slick was observed 200 nautical miles south-east of Tasiilaq. By southern standards, the town is remote; by Greenlandic standards, it is normal. It also benefits by being close to Iceland. And it is certainly far less isolated than the area in north-eastern Greenland that is due to be explored for oil and gas. There’s also less ice there than there is further north.
If the next accident happens someplace that is truly remote, we can expect the situation be even more serious. It could take responders even longer to reach the site. We’re not talking hours, as was the case with Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon. We’re talking about weeks possibly.
Greenlandic officials have repeatedly sought to reassure us that the country’s capacity to respond to a spill during oil exploration or production would be world-class. They’ve been rather quiet about the current situation. Even though this spill was not related to oil drilling it would behove them to review what happened. Are they satisfied with the way things went? Do they need more resources? Do oil firms need to meet tougher requirements in order to be granted licences? Can a response capacity established to deal with drilling-related spills be expanded so that it can address spills caused by ships?
If the Greenlandic oil slick results in logical decisions being made in Nuuk and Copenhagen (Denmark remains responsible for the lion’s share of response capability) and if the response capacity more closely matches the challenges posed by situation in Greenland so avoid major spills entirely, then last week’s oil spill may just have been a blessing in disguise.
The author is the secretary-general of WWF Denmark.